Two New York Film Festival press screenings (and one press conference) ate up the morning. First came Michael Epstein‘s LennonNYC (set to air 11.22 on PBS’s American Masters), a celebration of the commerciality of the late John Lennon under the guise of a recollection of his last nine years of life, most of which were spent in Manhattan. And then Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones‘ Letter to Elia, a tender and intimate personal recollection doc about what Eliza Kazan‘s films meant to young Scorsese, particularly from the mid ’50s to early ’60s.
LennonNYC director Michael Epstein, Film Society of Lincoln Center co-honcho Scott Feinberg following this morning’s screening at Walter Reade Theatre — Wednesday, 9.22, 11:15 am.
LennonNYC hits every exuberant worshipful note you could expect or imagine from a doc meant to inspire love of a rock legend (and to generate interest in buying CDs of John Lennon’s music). It says that Lennon was an amazingly spirited and indefatigable live-wire. He never had any moments of boredom or banality — the man was incandescent 24/7. Everyone he knew and worked with loved him or got off on him, or both. The talking heads all say the same thing — “John was so great, I loved John, his creative process was astonishing, he loved Yoko, he loved Sean, what a guy,” etc.
I’m sorry but sitting through two hours of this wears you down. I’m good for an hour of this but two hours feels like oppression, punishment. Hagiography always has this effect. I loved Lennon’s music as much as the next guy, but nobody’s life has ever been this vivid and wonderful and awesome to contemplate.
On top of which Epstein doesn’t even mention Mark David Chapman‘s name. Chapman was the dark side of Lennon/Beatles fandom, the kind of fan who felt he “owned” his idols and they “owed” him a certain kind of output. And it is utter dereliction, in my view, for Epstein to have ignored the saddest and darkest irony of Lennon’s life, which is that he was killed because he gave up being an angry and envelope-pushing rock crusader and retreated to a life of luxurious seclusion and house-husbandry. He was killed because he gave up the creative struggle for four-plus years, which led Chapman, deluded fuck that he was, to feel betrayed, and to take Lennon down as a form of revenge or punishment.
Make a face and dismiss Chapman as a loon, but that’s what happened. And any filmmaker who says “I didn’t find the Chapman aspect very interesting…it had nothing to do with who John was” (which is approximately what Epstein said during this morning’s press conference) isn’t dealing from a straight deck.
Approaching Walter Reade theatre on 65th Street.
Letter to Elia, on the other hand, is a delicate and beautiful little poem. It’s a personal tribute to a director who made four films — On The Waterfront, East of Eden, Wild River and America America — that went right into Scorsese’s young bloodstream and swirled around inside for decades after. Scorcese came to regard Kazan as a father figure, he says in the doc. And you understand why. Letter to Elia is a deeply touching film because it’s so close to the emotional bone. The sections that take you through the extra-affecting portions of Waterfront and Eden got me and held me like a great sermon. It’s like a church service, this film. It’s pure religion.
More than a few Kazan-haters (i.e., those who couldn’t forgive the director for confirming names to HUAC in 1952) were scratching their heads when Scorsese decided to present Kazan’s special lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999. Letter to Elia full explains why, and what Scorsese has felt about the legendary Kazan for the 55, going-on-60 years.
I didn’t try to get the attention of Film Society of Lincoln Center co-chief Richard Pena (l.) or that of Letter to Elia co-director Kent Jones (r.) — I just snapped and ran.
Cafe area just in front of Alice Tully Hall at Broadway and 65th — Wednesday, 9.22, 1:25 pm.